Campion is a "pakeha," a New Zealander of white European descent. She studied anthropology and painting before going to film school, and grew up in an era of increased feminist awareness. All of these influences are evident in The Piano. In an interview, Campion said the film was inspired by "Gothic Romantic writing," and "is very sophisticated, easily the most adult or complex material I've attempted. It's the first film I've written that has a proper story, and it was a big struggle for me to write." In a different interview, she commented on the film's eroticism: "I was trying to re-examine what erotic is. To see if you can create it in a half-centimeter square flesh."
Sigourney Weaver was Campion's first choice for Ada, but she was unavailable. The director also reportedly considered Isabelle Huppert and Jennifer Jason Leigh. But Holly Hunter was determined to win the role. "I'd never read a script with that kind of power," she later recalled, "and actually, have not read one since...it was such a private investigation of the psyche of a person. It's still probably my most fulfilling experience." Campion, who has said that Ada's character was partially inspired by the intensity of artist Frida Kahlo's face in her self-portraits, said Hunter's fierce visage convinced her. "In Holly's audition tape, her gaze was just stupendous."
Hunter also offered another talent -- she was an accomplished pianist, who had taken piano lessons since the age of nine, and had initially aspired to a musical career. Campion wanted the piano to be Ada's "voice," and composer Michael Nyman talked with the director about what Ada is expressing, researched period music, listened to tapes of Hunter playing Bach and Brahms, and composed what he called "reflective, lyrical" music for her to play. When Hunter won an Oscar® for her performance, she said in her acceptance speech that Nyman's score helped her find her character and thanked her first piano teacher.
Another skill came less easily to Hunter. Although rudimentary forms of sign language were used during the era depicted in the film, it was not yet codified. Instead, Hunter worked with a sign language interpreter to devise a simple signing method that Ada and her daughter might have used, and taught it to Anna Paquin, who played her daughter.
Paquin, whose only acting experience prior to The Piano was playing a skunk in a school play, won the role of Flora when she tagged along with her older sister to an open audition for the role in Wellington, New Zealand. Campion thought the petite Paquin was the right size to be Hunter's child, and was impressed with how well she read a complicated monologue. Paquin won the part from among five thousand candidates. She later won an Academy Award®, as Best Supporting Actress. At age 11, she was the second youngest actress (after Tatum O'Neal) to win the statuette in that category.
Campion herself earned two Oscar® nominations, for directing (the second woman, after Lina Wertmuller to earn a nod) and writing The Piano, taking home the writing award. She was the first woman to win the Palme D'Or for directing at the Cannes Film Festival; the film also shared the top film award with Farewell My Concubine and Hunter won the best actress award at Cannes.
Reviews for the film were ecstatic. Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, "Here's a mysterious movie that, as if by magic, liberates the romantic imagination...Ms Campion somehow suggests states of mind you've never before recognized on the screen." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times called it "as peculiar and haunting as any film I've seen...It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters, but about a whole universe of feeling." In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, historian David Thomson agreed: "The sense of place, of spirit, and of silence is Wordsworthian...The Piano is a great film in an age that has nearly forgotten such things."
Campion and Hunter reunited for the television miniseries Top of the Lake (2013), in which Hunter plays a guru to a group of women in New Zealand. In a joint interview, looking back on The Piano after twenty years, both women were proud of the film, but Campion regretted that she didn't kill off Ada in the hypnotic end of the film, saying "It would be more real, wouldn't it, it would be better? I didn't have the nerve at the time." Hunter laughingly demurred. "That was something that Jane toyed with when we shot the movie...and she's still thinking about it! Me, I love that it's a reverie for Ada, not a nightmare or something that haunts her. It soothes her."
Director: Jane Campion
Producer: Jan Chapman
Screenplay: Jane Campion
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Editor: Veronika Jenet
Costume Design: Janet Patterson
Art Direction: Gregory Keen
Music: Michael Nyman
Principal Cast: Holly Hunter (Ada McGrath), Harvey Keitel (George Baines), Sam Neill (Alasdair Stewart), Anna Paquin (Flora McGrath), Kerry Walker (Aunt Morag), Genevieve Lemon (Nessie), Tungia Baker (Hira), Ian Mune (Reverend), Peter Dennett (Head Seaman), Te Whatanui Skipwith (Chief Nihe)
by Margarita Landazuri